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Fun facts about the Palos preserves
Previous site of Argonne National Laboratory, but it's not radioactive

Thursday, August 13, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Barbara Brotman

It's PAY-liss

At least that's how the locals pronounce it. If you don't want to be taken for an outsider, don't say "PAY-los."

"That's how I know you're from the North Side," said Michael Hart, trails coordinator for the forest preserve district.

Is Palos radioactive?

Not so you have to worry about it.

An area near Horse Collar Slough was the previous site of Argonne National Laboratory and its predecessor, the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. Between 1943 and 1954, scientists conducted research there on nuclear physics. Radioactive waste was buried nearby.

But the U.S. Department of Energy and the Illinois Department of Public Health have declared both locations safe. "We don't have any frogs with six eyes," reassured Richard Newhard, director of the district's department of resource management.

What's a slough?

"A slough is a body of water that someone in the forest preserve district -- probably Bob Mann -- decided should be named that," said John Elliott, the district's education director. (Roberts Mann was the district's curmudgeonly first conservation superintendent.)

The word is derived from an Old English term for swamp. But there is no ecological definition of a slough, Elliott said.

When you want to be alone

Visitation Prairie in Cap Sauers Holdings, the district's largest piece of land uninterrupted by roads, is said to be the most isolated spot in Cook County. "You cannot hear airplanes overhead; you cannot hear automobiles -- it's like you're in a wilderness area," Newhard said.

It is best reached from the Esker Trail, a narrow path over an esker, a winding ridge created by a glacier. Don't look for it on a forest preserve map; it is not an officially maintained trail.

To find it, park on Illinois Highway 83/111th Street just west of 104th Avenue at the sign denoting restoration work. Walk south into the woods, up a trail that was once a driveway for a gravel quarry. Look for a narrow path with steep sides sloping down either side -- that is the Esker Trail. Follow it to Visitation Prairie.

You're on your own now

The key: a color-coded map.

Between 2005 and 2006, General Supt. Steven Bylina Jr. had all trails in Cook County forest preserves marked with color-coded signs. Then the district produced a set of maps showing the color-marked trails. Between the two, you can find your way.

Pick up the maps at any of the district's nature centers, including the Little Red Schoolhouse, just west of 104th Avenue south of 95th Street, or at the district headquarters, 536 N. Harlem Ave., River Forest. Or find them at fpdcc.com under "maps," then "division maps."

For an easy-to-read map of the Palos Division alone (the northern part of Palos), get the one created by Chicago Area Mountain Bikers at tinyurl.com/5do3v4.

When you don't want to hike

Check out the view of Hidden Pond from the Hidden Pond Woods area at the parking lot on the west side of Kean Avenue just north of 95th Street, suggests Roger Keller, regional steward of the Palos Restoration Project. Or visit the overlook of Maple Lake, he said, on the westernmost end of 95th Street just before it turns south and into Wolf Road. The lake is pretty enough that the 2006 movie "The Lake House" was shot there.

What's with the funny names?

A number of sloughs "were given picturesque names similar to those encountered in the backwoods of Indiana and Kentucky -- folksy names that people talk about," Mann wrote in his 1965 booklet on the origin of names in the forest preserve.

Some, including Horse Collar, Tomahawk and Boomerang Sloughs, were named for their shapes, wrote Mann, who named many of the places. "However, Hogwash and Belly Deep [photo above] and Laughing Squaw were chosen just for the hell of it."

Mountain biking?

Palos' steep trails attract bikers from several states. Contact Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (cambr.org), a volunteer organization that builds and maintains single-track trails in the region. The group has worked extensively at Palos, in conjunction with the forest preserve district.

Best way to get to know Palos

Show up at a workday of the Palos Restoration Project. A few hours of clearing invasive plants with the local experts, and you'll not only learn about the most beautiful places, you'll also add to them. The next Palos workday is 9 a.m. Saturday at Hidden Pond, meeting at the parking lot at 94th Street and Kean Avenue. Tools and gloves provided. For details, contact Roger Keller at 708-598-2234 or rkeller361 @comcast.net. Workdays throughout the forest preserve district are listed at fpdccvolunteers.org.


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